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Perceptions & Rights in Lebanon

On November 7, 2011

Recent events in Lebanon illustrate the importance of social perceptions to migrant rights. An anonymous Lebanese resident is tackling the disparaging conception of road cleaners; the designer by trade has posted signs throughout Lebanese streets asking citizens to respect the Sukleen street cleaners, most of whom are migrant workers. The message addresses residents' impatience, rude behavior, and general failure to acknowledge the cleaners' presence, which the designer states is a regular occurrence. These seemingly small acts of unkindness dehumanize the street cleaners, subjecting them to an almost entirely separate social existence. The casual but contemptuous behavior can also easily lend to psychological or physical abuse. The simple posters target this conceptual segregation by encouraging residents to pay basic courtesies to the workers.

But perceptions can also be negatively exaggerated; migrants in the Lebanese neighborhood Burj Hammoud are facing the backlash of a racially-skewed television report that depicts foreign workers as prostitutes and criminals. Migrants reported verbal as well as physical abuse by Lebanese residents, in addition to arbitrary arrests by security forces hoping to discover undocumented illegals. The Anti-Racism Movement criticized the prejudiced report as well as the heavy-handed response it sparked. One migrant argued the report unfairly depicted the crimes as purely foreign offensives, ignoring the native support necessary for such underground activities to have prospered. The numerous acts of 'vigilantism' and intimidation have put the migrant community on edge, restricting social outings and leaving the businesses that cater to foreign workers virtually empty.

Perceptions and attitudes form the social structures in which legal and human rights are determined. The work of many organizations like the Anti-Racism movement, as well as individual activists, is to challenge unbalanced social conceptions in pursuit of universal human rights. Though the Sukleen company recently requested the anonymous posters be removed, the designer remains determined to raise awareness about street cleaners through other means. The Daily Star's inclusion of activist and migrant voices in their coverage of the Burj Hammoud violence is itself a powerful rebuttal to the original report. Resetting the narrative surrounding migrants embraces their co-existence with the wider citizen population, an essential precursor to guaranteeing their social and legal equality.